Paperwork is often the worst part of many jobs. Reviewing countless documents to ensure accuracy and proper processing doesn’t traditionally join flying into space and fighting fires as tasks kids want to do when they grow up. Yet, despite the inherent drudgery, Papers, Please creates an engaging game around the reviewing of passports. Even more surprising is that Papers, Please has a lot to say about the nature of the bureaucracy and the trials of living in an oppressive state. Who knew that processing papers could be fun and meaningful?
The basic premise is simple. The player checks passports for individuals attempting to enter the fictional, totalitarian state of Arstotzka. At first, the passports are simple and the errors are easy to catch. As the days go on, additional documents and rules are added which require the player to memorize an ever increasing array of procedural complication. When the player finds an error in the documents, they flag it and send the applicant packing. Denying entry to a valid applicant or allowing in an invalid one results in warnings that eventually carry financial penalties for repeated failures. The player’s salary depends on the number of documents processed which encourages quick, smart play. The player collects their salary at the end of the day and then must cover the expenses of their family. Often the payment isn’t enough to fund important basics like food and heat forcing the player to balance a number of pressing needs.
The document checking mechanic of Papers, Please is surprisingly satisfying, particularly when the player gets into the flow of the game. Documents fly by and even the denials give off a feeling of a job well done. While the passport review is undeniably fun, the heart of the game is in the events that occur. Refugees, drug dealers, spies, and more will come through the passport window all asking for assistance and offering incentives. Will you let through the refugee with the outdated documents? How about the drug dealer offering you a bribe? Hanging over these decisions is the ever present feeling of danger should the player be discovered and the stark math of the penalties removing vital income necessary to preserve the player’s family back home. This is where the greater meaning is found. Papers, Please forces the player to ask about the nature of protest and heroism in the dark world of totalitarian governments. Each action has consequence and an individual’s desire for freedom from oppression may be overridden by their duty to their family. A large number of decisions had my finger hovering about the mouse and wondering if I was making the right play.
The only area Papers, Please really stumbles is with the family dynamic. Whereas the passport window is replete with bleak visuals and a plodding soundtrack that lend authenticity to each encounter, the family is only represented by a black screen with a few lines of text. The passionate pleas of petitioners give way to family members represented by the words “son” or “uncle”. The gamey nature of the family budget also has a dehumanizing effect. Most gamers will quickly realize that heat and food must come every other day and will do so by default. It’s hard to sympathize with the family when contrasted with the emotional and murky decisions that make up the rest of the game.
Overall, Papers, Please is a unique and engaging game. It takes a traditionally ignored topic and turns it into something fun and meaningful. If you’ve ever experienced the satisfaction of working through a list or want to play in a truly unique setting, give it a shot.